What Works

Today I gave a talk at the conference “World History Association of Texas – Phi Alpha Theta” at St. Edward’s University in Austin, Texas (via Zoom). My talk entitled “Approaching History and the Arts with Multiform Grammar” introduced my academic and artistic exploration of the communication of ideas through combinations of words and images.

In my talk, I presented a scan of a double spread (pp. 148-49) from the chapter “The Perfecting of the Individual” in Jacob Burckhardt’s The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, that he wrote in 1860 and Johannes Jahn illustrated in 1926. I showed how Jahn embedded two images in this double spread: one of the artist Andrea Mantegna, and the other of the polymath Leon Battista Alberti. I pointed out that, in this chapter, while Burckhardt uses Alberti as an example of the development of what he observed as the Renaissance, “all-sided” man, he doesn’t write anything about Mantegna. My highlights of Alberti’s name, image, and pronounce in blue, throughout this double spread, visualize this imbalance.

Jacob Burckhardt, The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy (New York, 1958), pp. 148-49

During the Q&A session, we discussed Jahn’s decision to embed the two images, although the text refers only to Alberti and the influence this might have on Burckhardt’s argument. We wondered if the section in which Mantegna is “doesn’t work” while the one that includes Alberti does. I claimed that we could benefit from suspending our judgment of this multiform situation and that the fact that Mantegna and Alberti are present in this chapter in different ways may even raise useful questions. For example, would it be possible that the use of various strategies of presentation in a single chapter increases the possibility that we read this chapter every time differently? Would this effect, in turn, encourage us to return to this chapter, to look for information that we thought we could find there? Moreover, perhaps applying various modes of presentation in a single document has some merit. It reminds us that the individuals involved in the making of illustrated literature have some freedom and that it’s fun to see them practicing it even if the result looks odd.

Jacob Burckhardt, The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy (New York, 1958), pp. 148-49
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